This may sound strange, but I don't think I've fully considered the ramifications of economic recovery.
Don't get me wrong, I've spent the past few years pondering it in the abstract. I've thought about how to best position my business for when things turn around. I've thought about what my clients will do when things turn around. And I've thought about how much better off my friends and loved ones will be when things turn around. For me, though, the word when carries a distant, futuristic connotation.
Now I'm not making any claims about exact timing; I'm neither an economist nor a fortune teller. But I've seen an uptick in my own business in the last few months, and I know of many others -- in companies large and small -- experiencing something similar. Revenues going up, bookings going up, that sort of thing. So, as I wrote this, I searched on Google, "sign of economic recovery." The number one result, for example, was about the lifting of a ban on horse mackerel fishing in Luanda.
Sorry, bad example. Google is still working on those search algorithms, I'm sure. But starting with entry number two, I found some encouraging tidbits. Things like increased hiring in Roanoke, VA and increased corporate spending on iPads set the tone. There was nothing conclusive, of course, and it was a decidedly biased search. Still, combined with my own anecdotal experience, it left me pondering an important question: what if an economic recovery were to start, in full force, right this minute? What if when is... now? What would I do? What should we all do?
Three questions come to mind.
How are you spending your time?
The smartest, most successful people I know found creative ways of adding value during the recession. New kinds of collaborative arrangements, alliances between former rivals, and forays into unexplored markets were common at the organizational level. At the individual level, people took jobs they wouldn't normally, and entered career fields they'd never considered before. In many cases, these unexpected turns had positive consequences. And yet, no one can argue that such forays take time from what would have previously been considered core business.
It's always good practice to scrutinize your use of time; doubly so in a changing environment. Some collaborative arrangements produce greatness; others produce more meetings than output. Some temporary jobs become dream careers; others really should stay temporary. When results of recession-driven creativity aren't as positive as you had hoped, inertia can be your enemy. It's far too easy to keep doing what you're already doing, even if that thing was supposed to be experimental or temporary. But just because you're in a collaborative arrangement doesn't mean you should stay in it, and just because you have a job doesn't mean you shouldn't look for a better one.
Ask yourself: if the recession had never happened, which of your current activities probably wouldn't exist? Then take the time to evaluate each of those activities against the backdrop of today, rather than 2009 or 2008. Enter the recovery poised to spend your time on real recovery, not on more recession.
What can you un-cut?
I don't know anyone who didn't scale something back in the last few years. The most fortunate made only minor cuts: more economical phone plans, perhaps, or less expensive entertainment. Everyone else got more extreme. In the last few years, headcount reductions and belt-tightening policies have become the norm in organizations, and individuals have scrutinized every penny of their living expenses. Again, much of this forced reduction has borne fruit. Spending money wisely makes sense.
On the other hand, cuts can easily go too far. At the organizational level, reducing office supply costs makes good sense, but failing to equip the workforce with what they need to function does not. At the individual level, eliminating your monthly cell phone budget sounds great, until your teen ends up stranded on the side of the road with no way to call home. And benefits that are hard to quantify often take the biggest hit in tough times. To the organization that stopped providing employees with toilet paper in the bathrooms, and to the individual who hasn't enjoyed her favorite cup of Starbucks coffee in two years, I must ask respectfully: might you have gone overboard, maybe just a little?
Consider the cuts you've undergone. Do reversal opportunities hide among them, chances to spend a little and get a lot? If you're intentional about which cuts are permanent, and which are temporary, you'll enter the recovery making wise investments in the longevity of your organization, and yourself, even as you continue to spend wisely.
What is your mindset?
Buddha said, "What we think, we become." Stephen R. Covey advised us to "begin with the end in mind." And the Rosenthal-Jacobson study proved that self-fulfilling prophecy -- the Pygmalion Effect -- is not just an esoteric notion, but also a psychological reality. The topic of mindset may seem ethereal, yet spiritual, business, and scientific thinkers alike have been reminding us for generations that we tend to produce in our lives what we hold in our minds.
I don't know about you, but in the context of economic recovery, that notion gives me pause. What if we've gotten so good at recession life -- so good at cutting, so good at minimizing, and so good at risk avoidance -- that we've forgotten how to create growth? If we walk into our careers and workplaces every day, expecting low revenues, low sales, low morale, and cutbacks, aren't we at risk for creating more of the same?
The solution is a balancing act, of course, and a deeply personal topic. It's worth exploring. Take a few minutes to reflect upon your own mindset. In what ways do your expectations drive your actions? Might planning for the worst ultimately lead you to get it? Obviously, you have to stay realistic, but within realism you might be well advised to create room for optimism.
I, of course, don't know much for certain. I don't know when the recession will end, if it has ended already, or even what the definition of its end would be. All I know is that during a tornado or hurricane, the smart people hide in the basement and weather the storm. They don't come out too soon, but they don't stay down there forever, either.